Burgers, Slaw — and Salmonella

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Summer in Iowa … ahh, there’s nothing like it. High temperatures and high humidities — neither of which seem to wither the spirits of hearty Iowans. Parks are filled with large family picnics, where good food is always a major attraction. Fried chicken, burgers on the grill, and Grandma’s homemade potato salad are a must.

Once upon a time the only bugs we had to fret about were ants and centipedes marching across the tablecloth. Now we worry about the kinds of bugs that are transmitted in foods. They are a lot smaller and potentially a lot more dangerous … with creepy names like Campylobacter and E. coli 0157:H7.

There are plenty to be concerned about. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are more than 200 diseases that can be spread through food. In a report in the September 1999 issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, approximately 76 million food-borne illnesses — resulting in 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths — occur in the United States each year.

The outbreaks can strike almost anywhere. And they spread very quickly. One such outbreak of food poisoning struck the small town of Oskaloosa in southern Iowa. It was a Thursday evening in November of 1996 and about 1,000 people (nearly 10% of the town’s population) had attended an annual church dinner. Soon after eating the turkey dinner, people started getting sick. The culprit: Salmonella. Before the weekend was over more than 200 people became ill, 60 were seen in local emergency rooms, and 21 were hospitalized. Officials felt lucky that no one died.

“On the Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and the Labor Day weekends you can be sure we’ll have several outbreaks of breast meat. Juices should always run clear, and hamburger and poultry should never be pink. Cook meats from start to finish at your picnic site — partial cooking ahead of time allows bacteria to survive and multiply.

Also, be wary of reheating foods that may have been contaminated. While you may be successful at killing any microorganisms that have proliferated, some bacteria (staphylococci and E. coli 0157:H7) produce heat-resistant toxins that remain behind even after the bacteria are destroyed and can cause severe diarrhea — or worse.

The good news, as summer arrives, is that Americans from New York to Alaska are becoming more aware of the dangers of food poisoning, and better at preventing it. The most recent CDC statistics show that food-related infections are down by 19%.

So don’t be afraid to pack up your picnic basket and celebrate summer with a glorious feast. Just be vigilant when you’re handling and preparing food. Whatever you do, don’t let Grandma’s famous potato salad sit out on the picnic table all day. Grandma is the last person in the world who would want you to get sick.